Native American Mourning War Raid Traditions and Impact

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Eastern Native American Indians carried out mourning war raids on neighboring settlements. In the mourning war tradition, the taking of scalps or captives served to avenge the death of relatives, replace the dead and invoke terror in the enemy. European contact affected the tradition of the mourning war raids and the treatment of captives. Although some captives still suffered ritual torture until death, most became valuable commodities as ransom, slaves or replacements for the dead. Native American Indian warriors selectively choose captives for adoption based on age and gender. Many of the adopted captives did not want to return to their homeland even when the opportunity arose. However, the fate of a captive varied from one captive to another.

The mourning war raids served two purposes. The most important purpose for the mourning war raids was to take scalps or captives to sacrifice to the dead to satisfy the need for revenge. According to the mourning war tradition, the spirit of the dead would not rest until avenged. The captives were given to grieving families who decided upon their fate. It was a process that helped grieving families deal with their loss. [1] Another purpose for the mourning war raids was to invoke fear in the enemy. The Iroquois had a ferocious reputation that helped keep enemies at bay and poachers off hunting grounds. [2] Those caught hunting on Iroquois land were roasted alive or kept as slaves. After the Deerfield raid of 1704, one Native American who wanted to kill a captive argued, “if mercy is shown to a captive who aught to be killed then it will make our enemies think they are weak and more likely to attack.”[3] These mourning war raids invoked terror along the frontier that sent many settlers back to whence they came. Moreover, many potential settlers were afraid to settle on the frontier.[4] The Reverend John Williams wrote in a letter to the Governor of the Massachusetts Colony before the Deerfield raid of 1704, “They (the town’s residents) fell so vulnerable to attack that some among them would freely leave all they have and go away. Indeed, strangers say they would not live where we do …”[5]

European contact spread diseases that decimated populations of Native American tribes. Deaths from these diseases increased mourning war raids. It did not matter how a person died, the death had to be avenged. This included deaths from mourning war raids. The tradition produced a never ending cycle of death.[6] For example, a smallpox epidemic occurred in 1701 in the Mohawk village of Kahnawake which killed many villagers. The women of grieving families of Kahnawake encouraged the Mohawk warriors to go in the Deerfield raid of 1704 to obtain captives to replace the dead. [7] When populations dwindled, peace treaties became necessary for survival. Iroquois peace rituals included tramping down graves very hard to keep the spirit of the dead from haunting relatives. This in essence broke the cycle of war. [8]

Highly excited crowds greeted warriors returning with captives from mourning war raids. This greeting must have been terrifying to captives. Their fate had not yet been decided. Although their stories contain many similarities, every captive experience was different. Many captivity accounts describe running a gauntlet, losing a finger, having to sing and dance and seeing another captive burnt to death. For example, Father Poncet, a French Jesuit Priest and his companion were captured by the Iroquois in the 1650’s. When reaching the village, the Priest and his companion were ordered to strip naked then forced to run a gauntlet where forty to fifty Iroquois beat them with sticks. They then ascended a platform in the center of the village where they were ordered to sing and dance. It was on this platform that many captives were further tortured. They had fingers cut off, fingernails torn out, firebrands applied to their bodies and more torture inflicted on their bodies. However, it was not the case for these two. After their song and dance, the captives were led to the cabin of their captor where they were given food. Shortly after the two captives ate, a woman came offering some beads in exchange for a finger of Father Poncet. Their captor granted the request and called upon a young child to severe the finger. Immediately afterwards, fire from a pipe was applied to the stump to stop the bleeding. That night the two captives were suspended in the air by cords tied to their bounded hands and feet. The next day they were ordered to sing and dance again while firebrands were applied to their skin. After a few days, an assembly met to determine the captives’ fate. Father Poncet’s life was spared but his companion was slowly burnt to death, limb by limb. The Father was given to an old woman to replace her brother who had been recently killed. Father Poncet was fortunate because the woman still could have demanded his death. He was later allowed to return to the French. [9] Another captive was granted his life by the tribe and given to a man to replace his brother who had died. The tribe thought the man was over his grief as he had already burnt to death forty captives. However, this was not the case. The man exclaimed that no one could replace his brother and ordered the captive burnt. This unfortunate captive had been celebrating having been spared when he was dragged away screaming to the flames.[10] The fate of a captive could change at a whim.

Jesuit Priests, who lived amongst Native American tribes in New France, influenced the treatment of captives. They could not stop the mourning war raids nor could they prevent many captives’ cruel deaths but the gradual conversion of Native American Indians to Christianity had some affect. Christian Indians tended not to torture their captives to death as non-Christian Indians did. [11] In one account recorded by the Jesuits in 1653, a Christian Indian gave presents to ransom a captive who would otherwise have been tortured to death.[12] In route to Canada after the Deerfield raid of 1704, a Native American Indian found that one of his relatives, a chief had been killed. He demanded one of the captives of equal status be tortured to death. In the captive’s defense, a Christian Indian named Thaovenhosen reminded the other Indians that they were Christians. However, tradition still prevailed and Thaovenhosen had to appeal to custom. He, too, was a relative and therefore claimed the captive for himself thus saving the captive’s life.[13]

Christian Indians, encouraged by the Jesuits, tried to convert captives to Catholicism. They used various means of subversion to accomplish this task.[14] Jesuit priests and Christian Indians saw no wrong in whipping captives into submission. For example, Stephen Williams, a captive taken in the Deerfield Raid of 1704, was told by his Indian mistress to gather wood while she was gone. Stephen saw the wood cart full and decided not to obey the orders. When Stephen’s Indian mistress returned, she told him she would not whip him because she had promised her husband she would not. Instead, she had a visiting Jesuit priest whip Stephen.[15] Another Deerfield captive who was Protestant was whipped for refusing to wear a Catholic cross. [16] Furthermore, Jesuits were instrumental in keeping captives with Christian Indians. “They told the Indians, that it was meritorious in the sight of God for any to be made an instrument of detaining, and making them (captives) members of the true Catholic Church.”[17] When the Reverend John Williams attempted to visit his daughter Eunice who was held in the mission village of Kahnawake, he found she had been taken far away. Williams was able to see her once while in captivity and then once more before he died. He blamed the Jesuits for keeping Eunice away from him. [18] However, Native American Indians often separated captives who knew one another from each other in order that the captives might forget their past quickly. [19]

By 1700, white captives were rarely tortured to death.[20] They had become valuable commodities for ransom. Prominent citizens in frontier towns became targets for capture. The colonies either paid a high ransom for these captives or arranged for an exchange of prisoners. In New England, Native American Indian tribes often provoked war not only to seek vengeance but also to profit from the ransom of prisoners. [21] For example, the Reverend John Williams was the son-in-law of Reverend Eleazer Mathers who was a very prominent citizen and a leading minister of the Massachusetts colony.[22] Williams was targeted by the French for a prisoner exchange in the Deerfield raid of 1704. [23] The ransoming of captives became a highly profitable business. In Canada, captives were ransomed by the French to use as indentured servants. Then, these ransomed captives would be ransomed again and again. All in all, the redemption process involved about four or five transactions and several middle men, each receiving a small profit for their part, before the captives returned home.[24]

Native American Indian warriors choose captives by age and gender to replace deceased family members.[25] This did not mean that male captives replaced deceased males and so forth. Rather, females and children under the age of fifteen easily assimilated into Native American life. Mary Jemison replaced two brothers of her adopted family.[26] Warriors who singled out a child for adoption often took care of that child during the journey back to their village. After the Deerfield raid of 1704, seven year old Eunice Williams was carried all the way to Canada by her future adopted uncle. [27] His sister had recently lost a child and was inconsolable. Eunice was intended to replace that child. [28] In addition, young women adapted well. They married and had children thus forming family bonds that were not easily broken. With certainty, successful acculturation involved marriage. Many captives were set aside for this purpose. [29] Although women and girls were put to work almost immediately doing chores, many women reported the work less tedious than colonial domestic work.[30] Boys were given freedom to do as they pleased. They spent their days fishing, hunting and playing. It was easy for boys to adapt to the Indian life. Joseph Kellogg recalled in his narrative, “The Indians indulge the English boys abundantly, let them have the liberty they will, while they outwardly conform to them, and so an easy way of life and libertinism is more prevailing with them than any affection they have to religion.”[31] On the contrary, adult men rarely were adopted into a family. If they happened to be adopted, men had to prove their loyalty. Many joined war parties to do so. A few captives even achieved chiefdom. James Smith was a British soldier who was captured in 1755 by the Mohawk Indian tribe of Kahnawake. He went through the adoption ritual and became a trusted member of society. Nevertheless, Smith had completely fooled his Native American captors into thinking he had acculturated for he escaped as soon as he was able.[32]

It was not unusual for captives to want to stay with their Native American Indian Captors. This fact made it difficult for white captive’s families to accept.[33] After the Reverend John Williams was repatriated, he began the long ordeal of trying to redeem his youngest daughter from the Mohawk at Kahnawake (French Canadian Indians). Williams sent a commissioner to talk to Eunice soon after she had married a Native American Indian. Rarely did captives return home after marriage. The commissioner and then her priest pleaded with her to visit her father. Eunice did not argue neither did she give reasons. She just said no. A journal from one of the commissioners who regularly talked to captives said, “It would be far easier to gain twice the number of French and Indians to go with us than English captives.”[34] Eunice had been captured at a young age. She knew no other life as was the case with many other captives who choose to stay with the Indians.

Native Americans took great care to assimilate adopted white captives into their tribes. To begin the adoption process, captives were stripped of their clothes and then thrown naked in a river to “wash the white from their body.” When this was done, the captives were dressed in Indian clothing adorned with beads, jewelry and so forth. Their hair was fashioned in the Indian style. They looked and felt as if they were Indian.[35] After this ritual, the captives were separated from one another and forbidden to speak their native language.[36] Most quickly forgot their language as Eunice Williams did.[37] At this stage, captives were given to a grieving family to replace their dead relatives. The grieving family could still decide on death or enslavement. The adoption ceremony continued with the grieving family crying and lamenting over the dead family member. After the crying stopped, the captives were heartily welcomed into the family and introduced to all.[38] At this moment requickening occurred in which the captive assumed the name, role, identity and authority of the family member he/she was replacing. Even those captives that were condemned went through an some sort of adoption process.[39]

In the south, Native American Indians practiced mourning war raids too. [40] In the Carolinas, Catawba warriors raided other tribes to take scalps or captives to either adopt or torture to death. The practice changed somewhat when the English colonists needed slaves to work their plantations.[41] To accommodate the need for slaves, Catawba warriors’ sold Native American captives to the English for a good profit. In addition, Catawba warriors collected bounties on hostile Native American scalps that use to go to grieving families to avenge the dead.[42] For example, the Catawbas joined the English to fight the Tuscarora in 1712. Following a battle, Catawba warriors rounded up Tuscarora prisoners to take to Charleston South Carolina to sell in the slave market. The market for Tuscarora prisoners was short lived for the war soon ended and thereafter the Catawbas suffered repercussions. After the war ended, most of the Tuscarora tribe left North Carolina History to join the Iroquois Confederacy in New York. Soon after their arrival in New York, the Iroquois increased their raids in the Carolinas to inflict revenge on the Catawbas for their part in the Tuscarora War. The raids became so intense that the Catawba Indians could not hunt nor plant their crops for fear of being killed or taken captive. Moreover, the raids went on for decades until the Colonial government interceded and arranged for peace negotiations which concluded in a treaty. As part of the treaty, captives would be returned. However, captives on both sides refused to return to their native lands. [43]

It was far easier for Native Americans to assimilate into another tribe because the adoption tradition was universal. However, most captive Native American men were tortured to death. They had no real value to the warring tribe. They could not be ransomed. Moreover, Native American men as warriors took life so it was accepted practice to avenge a death on a taker of life. Therefore most Native American men expected torture and death. David Belding, who was taken captive in 1696 outside of Deerfield, “asked the Schaghticoke Indian (now his fellow prisoner) what he thought the enemy would do with them. He replied that they would not kill the English prisoners, but give them to the French, and keep some for themselves; but he expected to be burned.” [44] Ideally, captives were expected to endure the pain of torture without crying out. Torture was a ritualistic rite in which the Native American Indian sang as he administered the torture. The captive Native American Indian being tortured sung of his war conquests and invoked his relatives to avenge his torment and death.[45] Native American Indians had been taught at an early age to endure pain without crying out. As children, they played games of endurance using hot coals applied to the skin. The child who could endure the pain the longest, won.[46] This is not to say that Native Americans welcomed torture and death. To the contrary, if the opportunity arose to escape, they did so.

Although contact with European colonists did not force Native Americans to abandon the mourning war tradition; it did change the purpose of these raids somewhat. The impact of Jesuit missionaries and interminable mourning wars made many Native American Indians less likely to kill captives and more likely to adopt them as their own. Furthermore, captives once used to avenge the deaths of tribal members became valuable commodities to ransom. Nevertheless, tradition still prevailed in many tribes and some captives still suffered ritual torture till death. Captivity remained a precarious situation.

Native American Indian History